Three decades ago, the minivan helped kill off the station wagon, to the chagrin of automotive journalists everywhere. Now the tire is on the other wheel: minivan sales have receded as parents flock to much cooler crossovers.
Chrysler invented the minivan, and that’s not something it will take lying down. To defend its turf, it undertook an aggressive redesign for its latest kid hauler, changing everything, including the name. What was once the Town & Country is now the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica, a name taken (ironically) from the brand’s last crossover.
Speaking in a stark event space during the Pacifica press launch (on the Pacific coast, naturally), FCA passenger-car boss Tim Kuniskis said the new minivan will hold the line, and not give up any more sales to insurgent SUVs from an already-shrunken segment. After that spiel, it was time to hop behind the wheel of Chrysler’s latest to see if a minivan really is still worth buying instead of a crossover.
Who said minivan’s can’t be stylish?
Chrysler is the latest carmaker to try to improve the image of its minivan by focusing on exterior styling. The Pacifica may be the most successful effort yet, with a slick and cohesive design that makes it about as stylish as a minivan can get.
At the front, it wears the same corporate Chrysler face as the 200 sedan, which blends surprisingly well with the larger minivan body. It also makes room for a large lower grille opening, an attempt by the designers to conjure a sportier attitude. What actually helps in that area is the proportioning: the Pacifica is wider than the Town & Country, rides lower, and has shorter overhangs. Those are all good things.
As in many other new vehicles, the sides get a bit of sculpting to make things a bit more interesting. Engineers also pulled off the neat trick of hiding the sliding doors’ tracks, giving the Pacifica a cleaner look. And there is even an option for 20-inch wheels. That’s right, this minivan rolls on dubs.
An interior like a small apartment
Fashionable styling may boost the egos of suburban moms and dads, but when it comes to minivans, the inside is more important than the outside. The Pacifica covers all of the bases here, with a very flexible interior and an impressive array of tech.
The Pacifica is equipped like a small apartment, but it handles a little bit better.
Our top-of-the-line Limited test vehicle included virtually every tech option, including the high-end version of Chrysler’s Uconnect infotainment, with an 8.4-inch touchscreen, navigation, and app suite. While generously sized by industry standards, the screen looks pretty small ensconced in the expansive dashboard and oddly shaped dashboard top. It’s still within easy reach of the driver’s seat though. Designers flush-mounted it to clean up the presentation, although that does eliminate a place to rest your fingers while tapping.
Uconnect is fairly intuitive, although the system in our sample Pacifica wasn’t without issues. The screen was pretty laggy, and the navigation map’s gray-on-gray graphics were less than ideal. Between the screen’s sluggishness and the lack of a pinch-to-zoom feature, it’s also hard to get much of an idea of your surroundings. Trying to keyword-search a destination with voice control was an exercise in futility.
Alternatively, drivers can use the built-in Yelp app to supplement the navigation system, although this feature was also flummoxed when we tried to search for a nearby tourist attraction by name. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto will be added for the 2018 model year, Chrysler says.
There are no complaints about the analog controls. They’re laid out on a compact panel below the central touchscreen, alongside the rotary knob that serves as a shifter. Everything is sensibly arranged, and there are enough controls for important functions like climate control, but not so many that the space becomes cluttered.
The rest of the interior is pretty nice too, with plenty of leather and metal trim for those willing to splurge. The two-tone scheme (Black/Deep Mocha in this case), also translates well across multiple materials; there’s decidedly more plastic in the rear areas, which are presumably more prone to kid damage.
The screen was pretty laggy, and the navigation map’s gray-on-gray graphics were less than ideal.
Speaking of kids, Chrysler added a new Uconnect Theater rear seat entertainment system to the 2017 Pacifica options list. Likely to be viewed as a godsend by parents, it consists of two 10-inch touchscreens mounted to the backs of the front seats, with HDMI, USB, and auxiliary ports, plus two pairs of wireless headphones and two remote controls. These rear screens had the same sluggishness as the front screen, but otherwise the system works pretty smoothly. It can play discs loaded into a player buried in the center stack up front, media from a USB drive, or stuff streamed from a phone.
Chrysler continues to offer its witchcraft Stow n’ Go seating system, which allows both rear rows to fold flat into the floor. That’s easy enough to do; the rear row even power folds with a couple of button presses. The Pacifica also has a foot-activated liftgate and sliding doors, although those features weren’t enabled on our pre-production test car. One feature it did have, though, was a built-in vacuum cleaner. Called “Stow n’ Vac.” It really sucks – and in this case that’s a good thing.
Solid and satisfying ride
The Pacifica is equipped like a small apartment, but it handles a little bit better. It rides on an all-new platform that Chrysler says is 68 percent stiffer than the old Town & Country’s chassis. The Pacifica is also nearly 250 pounds lighter (it still weighs 4,330 pounds) than its predecessor, according to the company, thanks to bits like aluminum sliding doors and an aluminum-magnesium liftgate.
Under the hood sits an upgraded version of FCA’s ubiquitous “Pentastar” 3.6-liter V6. It sends 287 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque to the front wheels through a nine-speed automatic transmission. A Pacifica Hybrid plug-in hybrid model that teams the Pentastar V6 with a dual-motor “electrically variable transmission” and 16-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack is on the way too, but that model wasn’t available to test.
Out on the freeways and mountain roads around Newport Beach, California, the Pacifica’s stiffer platform and weight loss are apparent. It feels solid, and while it’s still very much a minivan, the Chrysler handles cloverleafs and hairpin turns fairly well. Body roll is noticable but controllable, and the ride is comfy, with a bit of that old Chrysler float. Active noise cancellation and greater use of acoustic glass make the cabin quiet enough that parents should have no problem hearing their kids in the third row.
The Pentastar V6 provides adequate power to move the Pacifica’s bulk in a timely fashion, and passing maneuvers are trouble free. That power is delivered with an unenthusiastic growl, as if the engine wants you to know how hard it’s working to keep all of those seats, screens, and USB ports in motion. Chrysler says the nine-speed automatic is more refined than in previous applications, but it’s not always a smooth ride. Maybe another semester in charm school is in order.
When it goes on sale in April, the Pacifica will start at $29,590 (including destination). Our Pacifica Limited test vehicle, which had virtually every option except the 20-inch wheels, rang in at $47,480. Chrysler notes that’s less expensive than fully loaded minivans from Honda and Toyota, but that’s still a lot of money for what is supposed to be a family-oriented vehicle.
The 2017 Chrysler Pacifica is about as good as a minivan can get. With its somersaulting Stow n’ Go seats, the Pacifica offers interior flexibility most crossovers can’t match, but also adds an attractive design and a long list of tech and convenience features to the mix. The question is whether being a great minivan will be enough to get the attention of crossover-happy consumers.
- Handsome styling
- Flexible interior
- Smooth ride
- Plenty of available tech
- Sluggish touchscreens
- Options add up quickly
- “Sporty” and “minivan” really don’t go together